As time has gone on, education requirements to meaningfully have a career has increased incrementally over time. This is true across virtually all fields. This means that we start careers later, are more dependent on corporate jobs, and have to invest much more in our own children's education and development than generations in the past have done. Is this a good or a bad thing in terms of sustainability?

My initial guesses are:

  1. More time living alone means more energy consumption.

  2. Fewer children may have both positive and negative effects. For example, having fewer than two children makes it socially harder for people to expect to move in with their kids upon retirement. On the other hand, people consume resources....

  3. Less career time means less overall energy available for manual production. The job functions necessarily become oversight functions, and the labor is automated via cheap energy sources like fossil fuels. This leads to less flexibility regarding reducing energy usage.

  4. Less time and flexibility to make informed choices regarding sustainability because of additional burdens like student loans requiring additional efforts to make ends meet.

My guess is that this should be a negative factor sustainability-wise. Is this far wrong?

  • 3
    It's even more complicated. For example, more time on studies means better education and (at least in theory) more opportunities to learn sustainable ways of life. I would expect a book, not an ordinary answer to thogourhly map this problematics - and without considering tens or even hunderds of factors, you won't be able to tell whether pluses or minuses prevail. I would guess it's a mixed blessing which may lead both to better or worse sustainability depending on the way how the additional years of education are spend. – Pavel Apr 26 '13 at 7:48
  • Hmmm and the plusses and minuses may be different in nature as much as different in quantity, meaning they may not win..... That's a good point. Any suggestions for narrowing this? – Chris Travers Apr 26 '13 at 14:06
  • Being in education doesn't necessarily mean that you live unsustainably, although your focus on books may take away your focus on sustainable living and cause you to opt for more convenient, unsustainable options, because as of this moment they are more readily available. But then, this can be said not only about education, but about work in general. Surely a longer working day is less sustainable. As it stands, I don't think this is a very good question. – Earthliŋ Apr 26 '13 at 20:44
  • @user1205935 certainly we need people in education but I dont think that is what I am getting at. The question is whether gradual increases in the amount of education required (which we know affect everything from birth rate to retirement options) are significant problems sustainability-wise. This isn't about working in education so much as when to start one's economic and family life. – Chris Travers Apr 27 '13 at 2:15
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    @user1205935 it is a part of a bigger picture, as was the independent retirement question I posted earlier. And like the independent retirement question it gets to the question of sustainable family structure. If independent retirement is less sustainable than retiring with the kids generally... Additionally it isn't a question about education per se, so much as it is a question about a trend of specialization. Is there a real complexity cost that translates into a resources cost? I am guessing that there is but it is hard to say. – Chris Travers Apr 28 '13 at 2:16

Before responding to your questions in turn, I'd like to propose that I think this issue behaves somewhat like the (justifiably) maligned Laffer curve. In other words, I think it's clear that with no education, humans would still be stuck in primitive societies, which were sustainable, and involved small per capita resource usage. As education increases, you do get an increase in resource consumption, with a standard-of-living increase. However, I believe that in the future, we can achieve lower levels of resource consumption again, with further increases in education.

More time living alone means more energy consumption.

Staying in school doesn't just mean "living alone". It probably also means living modestly, in a small apartment. And it often does mean living with roommates. The people at both the universities I went to (in the US) all lived with small energy and spatial footprints, relative to working adults in the surrounding society. So, I'd say this issue favors staying in school, as more sustainable.

A link on CO2 footprint vs. age that reflects this issue, although school vs. work at the same age is not teased apart.

Fewer children may have both positive and negative effects.

While, technically this is true (there are positive and negative effects), I strongly disagree with the implied equivalency. Human beings consume lots of resources. Lots. In those countries where higher education is a realistic option (as posed in your question), humans consume even more resources. More humans fundamentally means more resource consumption. Not to mention the basic math that birth rates above the replacement rate are inherently unsustainable, as long as we're bound to this one planet.

Less career time means less overall energy available for manual production.

Exactly. As I alluded to earlier, students do have lower environmental footprints than an average working adult. The amount of work output by today's current population vastly exceeds that required to fulfill basic human needs (as evidenced by many of us working in jobs that are not fundamentally necessary). We need people to be working at jobs less than they do now (in the developed world), and producing less. I'm not advocating education simply on the grounds that it takes time away from production, but I do believe that's a beneficial side effect.

and the labor is automated via cheap energy sources like fossil fuels. This leads to less flexibility regarding reducing energy usage.

Labor will be automated regardless, and less educated workers could actually provide more incentive to automate. I've seen a number of your posts on the site that suggest to me that you think automation fundamentally increases energy usage. While that could be its own separate discussion, I'll merely assert here that I find that to be false (and my apologies if that's not actually your belief).

Less time and flexibility to make informed choices regarding sustainability because of additional burdens like student loans requiring additional efforts to make ends meet.

First of all, you can't make informed choices without education. Education underlies all decision-making. If there's any obstacle to sustainability today in the US (where I live), it's ignorance of the basic science that supports consensus thinking on climate change. While there are educated skeptics who simply don't trust climate science, want more data, or believe the solution is elsewhere (not sustainability, but something like geoengineering), the majority here are skeptical because of a lack of basic understanding of the science. I believe a subject like this, while possible to treat at the high school level, is probably better expanded on at universities.

Finally, at least in the US, it's not true that taking out student loans requires working more to make ends meet. It's precisely the opposite. Higher levels of education reap higher lifetime earnings by an amount that easily pays for the cost of the extra education (plus interest). Granted, that equation is going to be different in every country, as tuition rates vary, as do student loan interest rates. But, based simply on the example of the world's largest developed economy, you do not wind up having to work more simply because you paid for more education. You may choose to work more, because you have a more enjoyable career, or have suffered less wear-and-tear from a white collar career. But, that's a separate point.

  • This is sort of what I am getting at with positive and negative impacts though, when you say, " In those countries where higher education is a realistic option (as posed in your question), humans consume even more resources." That seems to suggest that increases in education increase resource consumption of kids making fewer kids a requirement. Is that correct (that the issue is less "equivalency" but "interdependency")? – Chris Travers May 3 '13 at 3:09
  • One other requests for clarification: "First of all, you can't make informed choices without education..." Would you say that we make better sustainability decisions than than the uneducated rice farmer in Kampuchea? If we taught the rice farmer modern science, would this improve the sustainability of the farming practices? – Chris Travers May 3 '13 at 3:16
  • @ChrisTravers, to your first comment. This is one area where it's difficult to separate correlation from causation. Is more education causing more resource consumption? Or is more resource consumption fueling economic growth (unsustainably, of course), which allows us to be in a position to attain higher levels of education? If you look at history, I believe the unsustainable resource consumption came first. The industrial revolution ushered in massive burning of oil and coal, while the average worker was still quite poorly educated. I believe fewer kids is a requirement either way ... – Nate May 3 '13 at 8:53
  • ... as the sustainable living habits of early humans simply do not scale to 7 billion people at all. Certainly not politically, given that we've already tasted modern life. I would agree that we don't make better sustainability decisions than the poor rice farmer. This is the Laffer Curve analogy I was positing. I think, relative to the rice farmer, initial increases in education lead to less sustainability. I think (hope!) that there reaches a point, however, where more education starts heading in the direction of more sustainable living again. I say this partially because I ... – Nate May 3 '13 at 8:57
  • ... think that we were actually pretty close to a tipping point. In the US, for example, prior to the financial crisis, public consensus was building that climate change was real, and a problem. Economic issues pushed public opinion in the direction of denialism, and as the US is the world's largest economy, that's had a big effect on stalling progress. However, I don't think we're so far off that another 10 years couldn't reverse the trend. Lots of climate disasters might do it, but I think a better understanding of science would help, too. I simply see too much thinking here along ... – Nate May 3 '13 at 9:01

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